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UN climate talks recommence in Bangkok

Date
03 April 2011
UN climate talks recommence in Bangkok

BANGKOK: The first formal round of UN climate talks since the successful Cancun summit (COP16) last December commences this week (April 4) in Bangkok.  Although the meeting is expected to be a low-key affair, it is likely to provide the first real indication of whether or not countries can build on the positive momentum generated at the Mexico conference.

As has been the case in past years, negotiators will spend much of the week agreeing a work program and a negotiating timetable for the reminder of the year.  Parties will also hold a series of workshops over the first two and a half days.  These will consider technical issues relating to mitigation commitments and actions by developed and developing countries, and also the practical details of the new, two-part technology mechanism that was established at Cancun.

In contrast to the immediate post-Copenhagen period, when countries largely stopped engaging with each other, climate diplomats have been visibly active since Cancun. The ‘BASIC’ group, comprising Brazil, South Africa, India and China, met in February and provided a reminder that despite Cancun’s successes, much remains to be done.  Amongst other things, the group’s communiqué highlighted intellectual property, the future of the Kyoto Protocol and climate finance as issues which need addressing in 2011.

In March, the progressive Cartagena Dialogue group also gathered for its first meeting of the year.  This informal grouping, which includes a diverse range of small to medium-sized countries ranging Ghana to New Zealand, discussed many of the same issues as those highlighted by the BASIC group. They also drew attention to the 2013-2015 ‘Mitigation Review’ as a priority for UNFCCC discussions. The review is perhaps the Cancun Agreements’ most important environmental achievement as it provides the only explicit mechanism for increasing countries' emission reduction pledges. Current pledges remain below the levels required to avoid dangerous climate change impacts.

Also in March, Mexico (who still holds the COP Presidency) hosted an informal ‘mini-ministerial’ meeting.  While such meetings are a standard feature in the lead-up to annual COPs, this was the first post-COP gathering of its kind.  Mexico’s decision to hold the meeting was in recognition of the need to provide political input into the UN process much earlier in the year than has traditionally been the case.  Such pro-activism is a welcome development and another reminder of the skill with which Mexico has run its presidency.

This flurry of international activity has taken place against a background of mixed efforts at the national-level.   In the US, the new Republican-dominated, climate-sceptic Congress has begun to flex its muscles. A range of initiatives has been proposed to stop the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from directly regulating greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), while efforts to roll back efforts of earlier progressive climate policies are underway in a number of states.  In contrast, the publication of China’s 12th Five Year Plan in mid-March, demonstrated that the world’s number one GHG emitter is committed to developing a lower carbon economy through increasing renewable energy, energy efficiency and supporting the growth of strategic, low carbon industries.  Europe meanwhile has prevaricated in the middle, unable to agree whether or not to unilaterally increase its 2020 emission reduction target to 30%, despite evidence from the European Commission that such action would be in the EU’s self-interest.

Bangkok will thus see many negotiators arrive with a renewed commitment and support for advancing the international process, but still constrained by the political realities of climate policies and politics back home.  Squaring this circle has always been the challenge of UNFCCC talks and one that will not be solved in Bangkok.  Instead, parties will need to build on the pragmatism that was a feature of Cancun and look to strengthen trust through focusing on the many technical issues that the Cancun Agreements threw up.  By concentrating on achievable, incremental, bottom-up deliverables, a firm foundation for substantive progress through the rest of the year can be created.  After the lifeline extended at Cancun, anything less would be indefensible. 

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